Commentary: ‘The Help’ by Kathryn Stockett

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Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel The Help focuses on a secret project (fictional) in Jackson, Mississippi (real)  in the early 1960s put together by an idealistic white girl named Skeeter and a group of black maids led by the stable Aibileen and the sassy Minny. Other primary characters include Skeeter’s young peer group for whom the maids work, Hilly and Elizabeth and Celia.

In those days, there were lines one did not cross when it came to the acceptable and unacceptable interactions between white employers and their black (this term wasn’t in general use in those days) domestic help. Skeeter, who is somewhat naive and hopeful about the future, crosses those lines. She takes risks and so do Aibileen and Minny. They fictionalize their names and call their town Niceville. If they are caught sharing stories with each other (much less writing them down), they might be beaten or killed. And then there’s the matter of trust, the trust the maids must put in a white woman who’s not acting like the other white women do.

I liked the book.

The Book Has Already Been Thoroughly Reviewed

Yet, there are already 4,523 Amazon reader reviews of The Help, and numerous articles and reviews of both the movie and the novel in the press. It’s unlikely that I have anything new to add to the discussion at this late date. In general, the book has been well received by readers and reviewers. Its controversial nature has brought out the usual kinds of dissatisfaction about miscellaneous errors of fact, the realism or lack of realism of some of Stockett’s characters’ viewpoints and actions, whether or not Jackson as characterized in the book approximates Jackson as it was almost 50 years ago. Some of the critics have forgotten that The Help is a work of fiction and not an anthropologist’s treatise about Southern race relations and domestic help of the 1960s.

On top of the controversy is, perhaps, one issue: denial. Because the picture of black and white relationships painted in The Help isn’t pretty and because it depicts bigoted (though usually nothing like the overtly nasty Hilly Holbrook in the novel) whites hiring generally accommodating blacks in a complex mix of discrimination and trust, most people want to hide this picture under the rug. Understandably, nobody wants to focus on it, much less applaud it. My view is that pretending that it didn’t happen doesn’t really help us move forward as a homogenized people.

In addition to being a well-told story, The Help brings to light what those of us living in the South saw day to day, but seldom hear talked about. As Stockett portrays in her book, whites did not see blacks as their equals, yet they trusted them as integral members of the household to cook, clean and look after the children. My family moved to the South when I was six years old, to a town I’ll call Nicetown, that was much smaller than Jackson but that featured some people who acted like most of the characters in Stockett’s novel. Very few people acted like Skeeter, or, if they did so, they kept it quiet. The closest person to Skeeter in the book was my mother who was fairly outspoken (as was my father) against segregation.

1960s Nicetown Fact of Life

Maids in our white neighborhood were a fact of life. They came on the city bus which let them out in front of our house, and from there they fanned out to nearby streets where they worked. My best friend’s family had a maid who was, while the parents were gone, the surrogate parent figure in the house. She was more stern than the parents, but also much loved as long as no lines were crossed. She did not eat with the family, ride in the front seat of their car, go to their church, or talk with them friend-to-friend.

Like Skeeter’s Niceville, my Nicetown provided separate schools for blacks and whites, separate swimming pools and restaurants and neighborhoods, restrooms labeled men, white and colored, and drinking fountains labeled white and colored. There were separate churches, too, until our minister said our church was open to everyone; those who didn’t like it left and started another church. Like them or not, the lines were hard to cross because “separate but equal” made certain that interaction was minimized. Stockett gets this right in her book.

My grandparents had a maid who kept their house spotless even though she was older than they were. She treated us, my brothers and I, as the surrogate grandparent when she was left in charge of the house. Like my best friend’s maid, she was friendly and talkative until one started to cross a line and act like we were black or she was white. It wasn’t done, and if you tried to do it, the maids grew quiet and their employers talked about how we’d get in trouble—the same kind of trouble Skeeter risks in the novel—if we didn’t act with proper decorum.

The picture Stockett paints in her novel is a picture I saw, though naturally (as a boy growing up) I wasn’t privy to either the adult conversations of the maids or to the discussions of the Skeeter Phelans or those few in my neighborhood what most resembled The Help’s pretentious Hilly Holbrook, more moderate Elizabeth Leefolt, or the redneck Celia Foote. While I can say that I saw Minny, Aibileen, Elizabeth, and Hilly in my neighborhood, I don’t see these characters in The Help either as stereotypes or as representatives of everyone else in 1960s Jackson.

Dialect, Southern Accents and Anger

Some have criticized Stockett for her use of black dialect. Her fictional maids speak the same way the real maids in my neighborhood in Nicetown spoke. Stockett’s use of this dialect in the book is not only accurate but works as an excellent means of showing the otherness with which whites saw their black help as well as how the black help felt about themselves. Language is a part of one’s culture, not the stereotyping put down of a white author writing about black characters.

I do think Stockett should have included the Southern accents of her white characters as well. She said, I believe, in an interview that she never thought of her own family when she was growing up in Jackson as having an accent. When I moved into the South, most of those I met thought I was the one with the accent. Perhaps Stockett saw it this way, and grew up believing that the Southern accent, while meanly ridiculed by people from other parts of the country was, in fact, Standard Speech. The book would, I think, have been a truer painting if Skeeter, Hilly, Elizabeth and Celia also spoke in their own dialect.

I also would have liked seeing a little more anger expressed by the maids when they talked amongst themselves, though maybe not even in Skeeter’s presence. In reality, of course, anything approaching anger would have been a difficult passion to hold onto in those days because feeling anger led people to say and do potentially dangerous things. The emotions tended to have calluses over them, for self preservation and perhaps sanity. Even so, readers will leave The Help knowing how the help feels about whites in general and their employers in particular.

These are my impressions, then, of The Help, rambling as they may be. Stockett has done a difficult piece of writing, trying to accurately portray another time and place to an audience who will for the most part judge everything in the book by today’s norms. Stockett is a bit like Skeeter, hopeful and undaunted by the likely criticism. There’s a lot to admire in The Help, and part of what I like about it is that it makes the painting of how we were out from under the rug so that we can no longer deny it.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of four novels, including the recently released contemporary fantasy Sarbande. He grew up in Florida and currently lives in northeast Georgia.

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6 responses

  1. Great review, Malcolm. I agree that some of the discomfort may be from our unwillingness to face our past. I grew up in the south. We had a maid named Lucindy. The maids in the book reminded me very much of Lucindy, and I’ll wager that even now one could travel to my home town and find some of the attitudes depicted by the white ladies of town in The Help. Uncomfortable topics always spark controversy.

  2. I suppose some of the attitudes would also be the same where I grew up, Melinda, though I hope that for most people, they’ve matured. Thank you for stopping by, Meliunda.

    Malcolm

  3. That looks interesting. I remember going to a duty station in North Carolina in 1963 and seeing things I couldn’t believe (or understand), coming from Montana where race just wasn’t an issue. I had lots of questions!

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